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The Danger of assuming someone is clean

Feb 16, 2010, 9:59 AM EDT

At the outset of his righteous defense of Frank Thomas’ Hall of Fame credentials, Joe Posnanski launches into discussion of steroids. The interesting part: after dealing with the usual steroid suspects, he wonders whether it’s possible to create a list of clean players, which he refers to as his “Fair Play” list:

Then there is the non-users list. The fair play list. This is a list
of players — and everyone has their own list — who we have to believe,
deep down, did not use performance enhancing drugs. How does someone
get on this list? Well, it’s tricky because just about everyone SAYS
that they did not use PEDs. And as soon as you start to celebrate
someone, someone else writes a book about him.

Still, by consensus, I would say a Fair Play List might look a little bit like this (feel free to add your own players):

– Frank Thomas
– Ken Griffey
– Greg Maddux
– Pedro Martinez
– David Eckstein
– Jamie Moyer
– Every Royals hitter since 1985.*

I love Posnanski because despite the fact that he has covered baseball for years, he always manages to take a fresh look at things, rarely if ever falling into cliche or conventional wisdom.  But in this case I think he’s off base. Not in naming those particular guys as non-users — if I had to bet money one way or the other I’d wager that they didn’t — but in engaging in the very exercise of sorting users from non-users itself.

Part of this is because we simply can’t know who didn’t use. Denials — even strident ones — have proven to mean nothing when it comes to figuring out who used and who didn’t.  Neither have body types or production (Randy Velarde, anyone? Ryan Frankin? Kent Mercker? Fernando Vina?).

But Josh Fisher of The Hardball Times points out a bigger problem than our ignorance:

The truly insidious aspect of assuming certain kinds of players did not
use is that it reinforces inaccurate notions of which players do use. By determining that David Eckstein
is a non-user because he is in danger of being blown away by a strong
wind and cannot ride some roller coasters, we add silent suspicion to
other small players with better physical tools. By identifying Jamie Moyer as a non-user because his fastball is often at no risk of a speeding
ticket, we baselessly affirm that players who throw hard are more
likely to be users. Our perceptions about what players do not use are
as inappropriate as our mental image of a the type of player who does.

While I’ve been called a steroid apologist in the past, that’s simply not true. What I’m against is (a) the demonization of PED users as profoundly evil people; and (b) the perpetuation of lazy and destructive assumptions about steroids, who may or may not use them and what impact they have on the game and the record book.  As Josh so accurately notes, any effort to make a “Fair Play List” from a pool of players who were never subject to steroid testing leads to (b) and, depending on what we write about the people on such a list, gives us cover for a lot more (a).

I see what Posnanski is trying to do here, but I think such an effort has the potential to be more destructive than helpful.  Let’s just work our way through the next decade or so of Hall of Fame votes as best we can, evaluating each player on their own merits the best we can, taking what we know — and only what we know — about their PED use or lack thereof, and leave the list-making out of it.

  1. Matt - Feb 16, 2010 at 10:20 AM

    No one would have thought Andy Pettite was going to be outed as a user either.
    I would bet my lunch that at least one of those players on JoePo’s list tried HGH or other steroids for healing purposes.

  2. Jonny5 - Feb 16, 2010 at 10:22 AM

    I think there is no way there could be a “clean list” free of anyone who ever used, at all. BTW thomas has some huge arms… hmmm?? Just saying…………

  3. Joey B - Feb 16, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    I’m not convinced on either Thomas or Griffey, nor am I convinced on Bagwell and Thome, nor Howard for that matter.
    But even if I was alway suspicious of ARod, I don’t think it’s fair to accuse anyone until they are caught.

  4. Jonny5 - Feb 16, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    I wouldn’t accuse anyone today, they get caught when they use now. Are there ways around it? Maybe? But with the way players get 50 games off no questions asked these days i’d say you’re jumping on Howard unfairly. The guy has been doing nothing but losing weight which is not typical of a steroid user. His arms are half as big as Thomas has up there. Just because guys are that good doesn’t mean they’re juiced.

  5. BC - Feb 16, 2010 at 10:54 AM

    I would not think that Albert Belle would be on the Fair Play list.

  6. Wells - Feb 16, 2010 at 11:06 AM

    who we have to believe, deep down

    This is just childish…

  7. Jamie - Feb 16, 2010 at 11:26 AM

    In Canseco’s book, I believe there are only two players he writes about who refused to take steroids: Frank Thomas and Ben Grieve*. That’s enough to put them on my personal “clean” list. Not that it matters much to me (Ben Grieve probably should have taken something).
    *someone correct me if he mentioned someone else. I’m not about to re-read that literary train-wreck.

  8. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Feb 16, 2010 at 11:29 AM

    I wouldn’t accuse anyone today, they get caught when they use now. Are there ways around it? Maybe? But with the way players get 50 games off no questions asked these days i’d say you’re jumping on Howard unfairly. The guy has been doing nothing but losing weight which is not typical of a steroid user. His arms are half as big as Thomas has up there. Just because guys are that good doesn’t mean they’re juiced.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe there are any tests for HGH yet. So players could still be using; however, they won’t be using the dreaded “steroids”.

  9. Jonny5 - Feb 16, 2010 at 12:05 PM

    How are players getting suspended for it with no testing??? I’m sure they aren’t coming out “Oh yeah, I eat the stuff for breakfast”… I hear there is no testing on one hand, then I hear of suspensions on the other. What gives? Anyone?

  10. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Feb 16, 2010 at 12:22 PM

    I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here and believe you misread my statement, not assume you don’t realize there is a difference between HGH and steroids. Nevertheless, one has a test for it (steroids), one doesn’t (HGH).

  11. Rays fan - Feb 16, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    There is a test for HGH, but it’s a blood test. The MLBPA thus far will not agree to submitting to blood tests, so it should be taken as a given that HGH is still being used. With the dollars involved in pro sports, I would also expect that there are still labs producing “designer” steroids that aren’t being tested for also.
    In case anyone missed it over the weekend, or does not follow basketball–they had a player outed for steroid use recently too–Juan Dixon, now banned from playing in Europe as a result.

  12. Jonny5 - Feb 16, 2010 at 12:38 PM

    No, I read it correctly, And still would like to know how players are suspended for use of HGH (not steroids) with no testing?

  13. Jonny5 - Feb 16, 2010 at 1:06 PM

    No, I understood the wording, not so much though how players are being busted for using HGH and being suspended without being tested. Like I said ,I’m sure they don’t admit it.

  14. scatterbrian - Feb 16, 2010 at 1:06 PM

    There is no testing for HGH, and therefore no major leaguer has ever been suspended for HGH use. Suspensions come from using steroids and a litany of other chemicals that can be tested.

  15. Lawrence From Plattekill - Feb 16, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    “While I’ve been called a steroid apologist in the past, that’s simply not true. What I’m against is (a) the demonization of PED users as profoundly evil people; and (b) the perpetuation of lazy and destructive assumptions about steroids, who may or may not use them and what impact they have on the game and the record book.”
    My problem with your (a) is that anytime anyone says that PEDs are wrong, you claim they’re demonizing people. Why can’t I say that I think PEDs made the game a lot less subtle, and that people who used them should not have their records taken seriously? Why do you refuse to acknowledge all the other possible arguments?
    My problem with your (b) is that is boils down to saying that since we can’t be certain, we might as well forget it. Well, that argument is pretty bad. Since we can’t be certain who’s a good fielder, should we other trying to discuss it? Of course. There will always be intellecutally lazy people–that shouldn’t mean we abandon our attempts to get things right. The fact is, we know a lot more about who took PEDs now than we knew 5 years ago, and I have the feeling that if everyone had your attitude, we wouldn’t know any more now than we did then. If you really want a better argument, advance the argument. Your howling about demonization doesn’t do that any more than anyone’s howling about evil PED users.
    And in general: I’ve been reading your blog and Hardball Times for a while, and frankly, this (a) and (b) don’t really represent my take-away of what your opinion is. Maybe I’m getting it wrong. But I think the reason people have a view of your attitude that you don’t feel is accurate may be because you’re expressing one part of it constantly, and barely mentioning the other things. My guess is that if I went back and looked at everything you’ve written, even just in this blog, (a) and (b) would not represent the sum total very well.

  16. lar @ wezen-ball - Feb 16, 2010 at 1:19 PM

    Pos isn’t creating a “clean list”. He’s describing how the general fan thinks – how, even though we know we shouldn’t, we still tend to put players into different categories when it comes to steroids. Yeah, the categories are fuzzy and not-at-all defined, but it’s the way the public is dealing with things. Pos just lists (some of) the guys who seem to have fallen into the public’s “clean list”.
    Now you’re right, it is probably irresponsible to do something like that, given his stature among the baseball community (not to mention his job at Sports Illustrated). But I don’t think Pos is saying “these are the guys who I think are clean, and everyone else is suspicious!” If you’re seeing that, then you’re reading way more into his mind than I think you can.

  17. Craig Calcaterra - Feb 16, 2010 at 1:54 PM

    lar — fair enough, but I don’t think Pos is simply saying “this is what people do.” He’s dropping the royal “we.” And while I’ll grant that he very carefully notes that we don’t know what we don’t know, he doesn’t discourage the practice of grouping guys into “roider” and “non-roider” camps either, and assumes it as part of the process. Which is fine — he’s not obligated to approach the issue the way I would — but I feel like the point is an important enough one to where it’s worth drawing the distinction I did.
    Lawrence: I write an awful lot so I’ll admit that it’s possible I’ve taken a more radical approach to all of this one one or two occasions than I claim in the post, but I do not believe it illegitimate to say that steroid use is wrong and that those who have done steroids have broken the rules and should be punished.
    If you can find me saying things to the contrary I’d like to see it, but as I sit here right now — and as I’ve always recalled about my beliefs on the matter — I draw a line between that stuff, which is fine, and instances when writers call steroid users “frauds,” demand that they apologize in just the manner they demand to all of the people they demand, call for resignations, or make outlandish statements such as “The Yankees would be better off with Brett Gardner at third base than Alex Rodriguez.” These such things greatly exaggerates the gravity of the offense and, in my mind, demonizes the player in question.
    As for uncertainty or uncertainty, whether someone used PEDs does not have a subjective element to it like defense and there is no continuum. Someone can have been a good defender and a bad defender at various times. He could be good on balls to his right and bad to balls on his left. He can be great tracking fly balls and awful on comebackers. In contrast, you either did PEDs or you didn’t, and we either know it or we don’t. I don’t see how speculating — without the aid of any evidence — gets us any further to the truth.
    Finally, if I’m hitting one aspect of my views on PEDs more often than not, it’s simply because blogging is a reactive medium, and most of what I write is reacting to that which I read. If people are going off on steroid users, I’m far more likely to engage with that view point than I am to state my simple beliefs on the matter. I think you’ll find, however, that I have on several occasions stated the full extent of my beliefs on the matter.

  18. Jonny5 - Feb 16, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    Jordan Schafer, Braves prospect. Suspended 50 games for HGH use.
    Asked how Major League Baseball determined that Schafer used HGH, Mike Teevan, MLB’s manager of media relations, said, “We have non-analytic means of identifying players. He falls under that category.”
    That cleared it up huh?

  19. Lawrence From Plattekill - Feb 16, 2010 at 4:46 PM

    Craig, that’s fair enough, too. I hope it isn’t beyond your charge here to occasionally write a column that’s more in depth than two paragraphs about how idiotic some other column is.
    I may not be representative of your audience, but I read this blog, and Pos, and Neyer, and a few others, and don’t much read most of the guys you take to task on this. I’m already past it, and so maybe I have a different reaction than people who do read those guys and tend to buy into them.
    I disagree on the continuum thing. Yes, either players did or did not do PEDs, but there can be a legitimate discussion on who did. There are going to be wild speculations without context much as there are still jerks who say “You can throw out the numbers–I watch all the games.” (And I have to listen to one broadcast my team.) But the discussion of who did PEDs is worthwhile, I think. There was a short answer or two by you hereabout Hank Aaron’s career arc that qualifies.) I think without the discussion, we wouldn’t know, because there wouldn’t have been any pressure on Rodriguez or McGwire or others to ‘fess up. But that’s an honest disagreement.
    I have no problem with you pummeling anyone stupid enough to say that the Yankees would be better off with Brett Gardner at third than Rodriguez. I’m a Yankee fan, and I don’t like Rodriguez personally, but that doesn’t mean I want Cody Ransom back. (Gardner and Granderson rather than Damon and Cabrera? I’m on board.)
    Anyway, I’m still reading, and looking forward to finding out what this blog is like in season.

  20. Jonny5 - Feb 16, 2010 at 4:56 PM

    Our great grandchildren will be arguing about the “steroid era”. It kinda sucks when you think about it. I blame the MLB in a way for looking the other way. But on the other hand how do you try to control something before it’s happening?

  21. Old Gator - Feb 16, 2010 at 5:16 PM

    “The danger of assuming someone is clean.” Exactly the words my father used as I boarded the bus for college.
    Handed me a pack of Trojans and a bottle of penicillin capsules as he said it, too. That was my dad – knew me too well.

  22. willmose - Feb 17, 2010 at 12:46 AM

    Craig, I don’t understand about steriods, about the magic drug. If steriods turn toads into homerun hitters, why didn’t all the guys that tested positive hit 60+ homeruns? Weren’t there 103 of them? Did I miss the year where over 100 guys hit 60+ homeruns? Gee whiz, A-Rod, the greatest player to ever grace the earth, couldn’t hit 60 in a season even after being juiced for more than 5 seasons that he admits to. I guess the magic just works if you have an Scottish name sounding name or have the same initials as ammo for a Daisy or you got the wrong NY sportwriter mad at you.

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